Thoreau's Last Words-- and America's First Literatures
Thoreau's Last Words-- and America's First Literatures
by Jarold Ramsey
in Redefining American Literary History, Edited by A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff
& Jerry W. Ward, Jr. The Modern Language Association, New York, 1990. pp. 52-61.
Used with the author's permission.
The last intelligible words spoken by Henry David Thoreau in this life were,
according to his friend William Ellery Channing, the Algonquian term moose and
that epic misnomer of misnomers, Indian (319). Now these details are hardly
surprising, given Thoreau's lifelong interest in Native American lore in general,
and in particular his deathbed editing of his book The Maine Woods,
with its evocations of Indian guides like Joe Polis and Joe Aitteon, and of
what the author called---the moosey woods." It has long been assumed that Thoreau
intended, in fact, to write an ethnological treatise on the American Indians;
Robert Sayre has cast some doubt on the reality of such a purpose per se, but
it still seems likely that, had Thoreau lived, he would have attempted some
sort of concentrated treatment of his Indian researches (163).
The task of trying to redefine the origins of American literature in terms
of the American Indian traditional literatures has drawn me, inevitably, to
this conjectural aspect of Thoreau's career. No disputing that, of our classic
writers, his work owes as much as anybody's to an intense awareness of the native
cultures-but what if he had been given another ten or fifteen years to write?
The question is unanswerable, irresistible, and instructive, because it suggests
a whole series of "what if" conjectures about American writers who might
have been profoundly influenced by the aboriginal lore of their country, but
in fact weren't.
What if, for example, Longfellow had somehow gone into Indian Territory with
his early idol, Washington Irving, in 1832, or preceded Thoreau by seeking out
the Abenakis of his own state? Or what if he had at least read, along with the
works of Schoolcraft and Heckewelder, Lewis Henry Morgan's masterly 1851 story
of the Iroquoian peoples in The League of the Iroquois, including accounts
of the historical hero named Hiawatha? What if Morgan himself, whose interest
in Iroquoian myths and legends is well documented in his books, had been a poet
or novelist as well as an ethnographer? What if Edgar Allan Poe had somehow
happened upon the great Iroquois Condolence Ritual, with its gothic interplay
of light and shadow? What if Prince Maximilian had somehow taken James Fenimore
Cooper along on his expedition into [p.53] the Great Plains, in company with
the painter Karl Bodmer? What if Herman Melville had gone among the Cheyennes
or the Kiowas rather than to the Marquesas? What if Whitman, or William Carlos
Williams, had managed to hear a performance of the Navajo Night Chant? What
if Ezra Pound had stayed home (at least for a few years) and set his mind to
translating Ojibwa or Papago lyrics? 1
In such conjectures about individual writers, we begin to see, I think, that
instead of talking about the "Indian origins" of American literature, we would
do better to acknowledge that such origins are mostly hypothetical and to inquire
why, after four centuries of contact, America's first traditional literatures
have had so little influence on our literary heritage. We would also have to
acknowledge, I think, the Anglo-American imperviousness to the literary traditions
of other ethnic groups among us-most notably, of course, those of black Americans.
But the case of the Indians, and what might have been our literary legacy from
them, is special, because of the sheer length of time involved in our associations
and because of the simple but crucial fact that the Indian peoples were native
to the American land and in full verbal and imaginative possession of its features
before the rest of us came over. From the beginning, how little we have taken
in of names and languages, myths and tales! The open-minded curiosity about
such matters that animates the first book to refer in detail to native narratives,
Roger Williams's Key into the Language of America (1643), has proved
to be the exception in our literary history rather than the rule. 2
Certainly, from the beginning, the gross fact of the native presence has been
indelibly stamped on American writings as subject matter and image. From John
Smith's narratives on through Cooper's romances and into the heyday of Hollywood,
we have had no lack of stylized Indian images to conjure with: noble savages
and savage brutes, natural gentlemen and red-skinned devils. Scholars like Roy
Harvey Pearce (Savages), Richard Slotkin, and Robert Berkhofer have
shown in detail how arbitrary, absolute, and self-perpetuating these images
have tended to be-how mythic, in fact, as refractions of reality having the
power to alter reality, and revealing more about the image makers and their
aggressive or guilty preoccupations than about their subjects (see also Bataille
and Silet, The Pretend Indians). As Berkhofer observes:
For most Whites throughout the past five centuries, the Indian of imagination and ideology has been as real [as], perhaps more real, than the Native American of actual existence and contact. As preconception became conception and conception became fact, the Indian was used for the ends of argument, art, and entertainment by White painters, philosophers, poets, novelists, and moviemakers among many. (71)
But literary imaging of native life, of which there has been so much, must
not be confused with literary assimilation of native imaginative traditions,
of which there has been too little. The disparity between the persistent popularity
of the first and the utter [lack? word omitted] of the second is certainly striking.
Perhaps the very strength of the fixation of writers on images of "the Indian-
largely accounts for their indifference to the of tribal literatures. Why take
the trouble to find out how Native Americans picture themselves imaginatively,
when you and your readers already know their official literary iconography?
At least Longfellow actually saw fit to interest himself in an authentic native
narrative, the Ojibwa Manabozho cycle he found in Schoolcraft: the interest
itself, so rare in [p. 54] its century, reflects more credit on Longfellow from
a literary and historical standpoint than he has received as the author of the
much-ridiculed Song of Hiawatha. But the poem is, alas, shaped through and through
by Anglo prejudices and stereotypes. Despite the abundant evidence provided
by Schoolcraft that the Manabozho cycle was in fact part of another, distinctive
literary tradition-one largely incompatible, formally, with our own-Longfellow
appropriated the Ojibwa material instead of assimilating and recreating it with
anything like fidelity to the original. The episodes of Nokornis's storytelling,
for example, owe virtually nothing to Schoolcraft's accounts of Ojibwa recitations;
these episodes are charming--but according to Western ideas of "children's literature."
And if Longfellow did read George Catlin's Letters and Notes on the Manners,
Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians, its wild and vivid
descriptions of native fertility ceremonies among the Mandans and other groups
seem to have borne no fruit in his imagination, judging from the pallid episode
he makes of Minnehaha blessing the maize at night. 3
One might object on behalf of a writer like Longfellow, and others in the nineteenth century who were even less concerned with Indian languages and oral traditions, that these materials were largely untranscribed and unpublished until the last decades of the century, when the Bureau of American Ethnology began to release its texts. But the lack of conveniently available texts does not explain the kind of neglect we are considering: it seems to be deeply ingrained, not just a matter of scholarly work lagging behind literary interests. When the native linguistic and literary texts did become available, there was hardly a surge of attention to them on the part of our writers. The literary interest was, in the main, simply not there. The sad fact is that American literature has never really enjoyed that literary and philological zeal, essentially Romantic, for rediscovering and assimilating folk art and aboriginal literatures that sent Goethe, Schiller, Herder, and others out to transcribe boatmen, farmers, and peasant grandmothers in the cause of extending German literature; that sent Lonnrot out through back-country Finland in quest of the performed tales that he would eventually shape into the Kalevala; and that made Bartok turn ethnomusicologist for the enrichment of Hungarian music, first of all his own. Nor have many American writers expressed the kind of interest in the unwritten native traditional art of their land that Sir Philip Sidney admits to in a famous passage in A Defense of Poesy:
I have never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas that I found not my heart moved more than with a trumpet. And yet it is sung but by some blind crowder, with no rougher voice than rude style; what being so evil apparalled in the dust and cobwebs of that uncivil age, what would it work, trimmed in the gorgeous eloquence of Pindar? (29)
(It is part of the pathos of Sidney's early death that he was never able to pursue this nativistic impulse himself and perhaps reconcile it with his classical biases; but in surviving contemporaries--Spenser and Shakespeare preeminently, and secondary figures like Samuel Daniel--it soon became an important motive in the Elizabethan literary spirit.)
I don't know that William Faulkner ever read Sidney's Defense; I'd like to
think that he did, and found in the Elizabethan culture hero an imaginative
forebear. For Faulkner did hearken deeply to the rude song of the blind crowder,
or rather to its American folk equivalent in the stories and oral traditions
of the whites and blacks of Mississippi-and the Indians. It is revealing that,
instead of looking for possible sources of the Indian [p. 55] episodes in Go
Down, Moses and other works in Choctaw and Chickasaw folklore, Faulkner's
critics have mostly been content to accept the spirit of the author's off-putting
remark that he just "made them up" (qtd. in Dabney 11). It is also revealing
that, even in a fine study that conclusively shows the ethnographic accuracy
and penetration of Faulkner's knowledge of these tribes, Lewis Dabney does not
take the final step and adduce the Choctaw and Chickasaw myth texts that might
prove the authentic Indian origins of the tragic story of the hunters and the
To sum up this rather dismal survey: we cannot really claim an Indian origin for American literature, if by that we mean-as we should-a significant and persistent origin in the native repertories themselves. Sympathetic writers like Thoreau and Faulkner and scholars like Morgan, Adolf Bandelier, Daniel Brinton, Charles Leland, Washington Matthews, George B. Grinnell, Mary Austin, Paul Radin notwithstanding, the failure to engage the native legacy would constitute a long chapter in our history of missed chances, well into the middle of the twentieth century.
If it is too late for origins, it is never too late for discoveries, and I
think that within the current trendiness of Indian studies, "getting into Indians,"
and so on, there really are the makings of a genuine American literary engagement
with the first literatures of the country. To a considerable extent it is imaginative
writers-poets and novelists who are leading the way. Where in the last century,
Philip Freneau, Thomas Cooper, and William Cullen Bryant were fond of writing
sympathetic poems about native characters and situations, irrespective of ethnological
distinctions, we now have poets like Gary Snyder, who writes with an ethnographer's
knowledge of western Indian folkways; David Wagoner, whose collection Who
Shall Be the Sun is based on scholarly transcriptions of Northwest Indian
myths; and W. S. Merwin, whose adaptation of Grow songs and of narratives and
songs from other North and South American native peoples is linguistically and
ethnologically scrupulous. Remarks by Snyder typify, I think, the interest such
artists feel in getting past Anglo conceptions of Indian life, to native literary
images in, for example, stories about trickster heroes like Coyote. "[The] first
thing that excited me about Coyote tales," Snyder has written, "was the delightful
Dadaistic energy, leaping somehow into a modern frame of reference" (81). And,
as a more general comment, he notes:
So, why do modern writers and some young people today look for native American lore? Well, the first answer [is], there is something to be learned from the native American people about where we are. It can't he learned from anybody else. We have a western white history of a hundred and fifty years; but the native American history (the datings are always being pushed back) was first ten thousand years, then it was sixteen thousand years, then people started talking about twenty-five thousand years, and now ... fifty thousand years. So, when we look at a little bit of American Indian folklore, myth, read a tale, we're catching just the tip of an iceberg of forty or fifty thousand years of human experience, on this continent, in this place. It takes a great effort of imagination to enter into that, to draw from it, but there is something powerfully there. (79-80)
These interests and undertakings represent something new, at least for Anglo writers
of such stature. Although there have been more Native American writers in our
history than most of us have realized-as important bibliographic and text-recovery
work by A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff and others is revealing-there is also something
auspicious [p. 56] about the rise to prominence, since the late 1960s, of so many
gifted younger native authors. The novels and short stories of N. Scott Momaday,
Leslie Marmon Silko, Simon Ortiz, James Welch, and Louise Erdrich; the plays of
Hanoi Geigogamah; the poetry of Silko, Ortiz, Duane Niatum, Ray Young Bear, and
others; and the proliferation of anthologies of Indian writing all testify to
the arrival of a genuine Native American current in contemporary writing, comparable
to the breakthrough into publication and critical self-awareness of black writers
a generation before. Much of this work---Silko's extraordinary first novel, Ceremony,
for example, and Niatum's volumes of poetry---is explicitly and self-consciously
grounded in tribal mythology, ritual, and song. 5
How does the discovery of the traditional verbal arts of the tribes bear on
the work of scholars and teachers in the field of American literature and beyond
that, on literary studies generally? First of all, the creative ferment has
been 'matched in the scholarly domain, not coincidentally, by the appearance
of a new field of literary study, ethnopoetics. Deriving its methods and principles
from cultural anthropology, literary formalism, structuralism, semiotics, and
contemporary linguistics, the ethnopoetic movement has extended our grasp of
oral and traditional literature as literature. In the work of two of its most
distinguished scholars, Dennis Tedlock and Dell Hymes, there is promise of new
literary perceptions that will carry far beyond the native repertories. Hymes's
"In Vain I Tried to Tell You," the first of a series, is the benchmark in the
field so far; to read this brilliant, difficult book is to see the western Chinookan
narratives come alive under Hymes's scrutiny as sophisticated art-and also to
feel an enhancement of one's sense of what literature is and what it does. The
same can be said of Tedlock's Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation.
In a response to the "Working Papers" of MLA's Commission on the Future of the Profession, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has argued cogently that the incorporation of new literary texts---black, Chicano, Native American---must include new methods, fresh ideas about literature, or else the widening of the canon is merely appropriation, or "token integration," as we used to say. In Gates's phrase: "Method arises from text, and critical method must change." 6 A book like Hymes's is certainly aimed at expanding our notions of literary texts; its critical methodology---especially its combinations of methods---will, I predict, influence the study of more conventional forms of narrative:
There are linguistics in this book, and that will put some people
off. "Too technical," they will say. Perhaps such people would be amused to
know that many linguists will not regard the work as linguistics. "Not theoretical,"
they will say, meaning not a part of a certain school of grammar. And many folklorists
and anthropologists are likely to say, "too linguistic" and too literary" both,
whereas professors of literature are likely to say, "anthropological" or "folklore,"
not "literature" at all. But there is no help for it. As with Beowulf
and The Tale of Genji, the material requires some understanding of
a way of life. Within that way of life, it has in part a role that in English
can only be called that of "literature." Within that way of life, and now, I
hope, within others, it offers some of the rewards and joys of literature. And
if linguistics is the study of language, not grammar alone, then the study of
these materials adds to what is known about language.... The joy, the understanding,
the language are all of a piece. (Hymes 5)
In terms of academic politics, the appearance of an MLA session or two on
Indian writers and on traditional native material does not a new field or discipline
make; it [p. 57] should count for something, however, that at both the annual
convention and at the several western regional meetings, such sessions have
been held for a number of years now, well attended and lively. As for professional
societies beyond the MLA, there are at least three: the Society for American
Indian Studies and Research, the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literatures
of the United States, and the Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures.
The first two groups support publication of American Indian Quarterly
and MELUS, respectively. ASAIL publishes its Studies in American
Indian Literature, edited by Helen Jaskoski and featuring articles, reviews,
symposia on new work by Indian writers, and a continuing series of Indian studies
bibliographies; the association has launched ASAIL Notes, a newsletter
covering activities and opportunities in the field of Native American studies.
On the West Coast, a group of scholars at the University of California, Los
Angeles, produces a quarterly review with similar aims: American Indian
Culture and Research Journal. Other periodicals, too, have recognized the
growing academic interest in Native American work by publishing articles on
the subject-College English, Book Forum, Georgia Review,
Genre, Western American Literature, American Quarterly,
Parnassus, New Literary History, Poetics, Boundary
What about a journal like American Literature? The question is not
meant maliciously. For all I know, AL has not been regularly receiving
manuscripts on native literature (in 1979 it did publish Vernon E. Lattin's
"Quest for Mythic Vision in Contemporary Native American and Chicano Fiction,"
and in 1981 it printed Arnold Krupat's "Indian Autobiography: Origins, Type,
and Function"). But it would be nice if Americanist journals like AL
actively undertook to help our field define and locate itself academically.
Until we find a way to see our subject as a special but legitimate zone of American
literary studies, the field is in danger, I fear, of flying apart under the
stress of so much hyphenation: ethnopoetical-anthropological-folkloristic-sociolinguistical....
If Hiawatha is an official canonical piece of American literature, why isn't
the great Ojibwa Manabozho trickster cycle on which it is uncertainly based,
and likewise the magnificent Iroquois Condolence Ritual, which memorializes
the real Hiawatha? Why, in terms of academic policies and politics, are there
no designated chairs of Native American literatures and languages in this country?
If perceived within the Academy as a branch of American literary scholarship, newfangled but devoted to our oldest literary traditions, Indian studies could, I think, make up for lost time and get on better with its proper pursuits. Foremost among these is the kind of intensive work on native languages, tribe by tribe, that heretofore has been carried on almost exclusively for linguistic and anthropological ends: here, on a basic philological level, is where the major literary discoveries are going to he made, and in fact are already being made by ethnopoetic scholars (see esp. Hymes, "Discovering"; Tedlock, Finding the Center). Perhaps it is not too farfetched to imagine a time when students of American literature will learn Indian languages so as to engage their oral literatures---and, equally desirable, Native Americans will formally prepare to edit, interpret, and teach the repertories of their own cultures.
Along with the learning of languages, and consequent upon it, much work needs
to he done in retranslating and reediting the older texts, those that appeared,
for example, under the auspices of the Bureau of American Ethnology. The possibilities
of making transcriptions from performances even at this late date are not to
be neglected, as the work of Dennis Tedlock, Larry Evers, J. Barre Toelken,
William Bright, David McAl [p. 58] lester, Richard and Nora Dauenhauer, and
the transcribing and translating team connected with the British Columbia Indian
Language Project makes clear.6 In addition, of course, scholars should make
systematic attempts to record native literary concepts and attitudes, both conventional
and idiosyncratic. The fact that such crucial information was rarely solicited
in the past is a severe handicap to our work with the older texts (see Toelken
and Scott 72-73, 78).
In terms of literary works by Indian writers, efforts are under way on the
rediscovery, reassessment, and republication of "lost" texts: Dexter Fisher's
edition of Co-ge-we-a, a novel (possibly the first by an Indian woman)
by the neglected Okanagan writer Mourning Dove; A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff's edition
of The Moccasin Maker, by E. Pauline Johnson; and a reissue of Sarah
Winnemucca's important Life among the Piutes (1883), with an introduction
by Russ and Anne Johnson. However, much reclamation work remains to be done.
More generally, there is much to do in what might be called "literary ethnography"-that
is, the systematic study of tribal and intertribal history and customs in relation
to the traditional and modern literatures. What's necessary now is not so much
new field work, as a specifically linguistic and literary recovery of the enormous
amount of ethnological information collected and filed between 1880 and 1920
and mostly neglected. For example, one of the stories I discussed in my 1977
PMLA article on two Oregon myth narratives ends with the promise that the heroes
of the piece will eventually turn into woodpeckers. I had to resolve this odd
detail rather dubiously in contextual terms and only later discovered, in some
old ethnographic notes, that in fact woodpeckers' scalps and feathers were highly
prized among West Coast tribes as symbols of status and authority-so the transformation
is auspicious indeed, and fully in keeping with its heroic tone (Reading the
Fire 92). We take such illuminations for granted in the study of Beowulf,
or Ben Johnson's plays; and the serious study of the native repertories will
require a philological base no less meticulous. In Dell Hymes's words: "With
texts, as sometimes with the myths themselves, what is dead can be revived.
We cannot bring texts to life by stepping over them five times, but we can by
scholarship. There is much to do and few to do it" ("In Vain" 14).
On more narrow literary grounds, other challenges present themselves. One is to develop a systematic classification of the features---I mean the characters, the motifs, the plot configurations---of the native repertories by tribe and region, so that typological fields and the primary storytelling permutations within them can be identified. It is typical of the spasmodic history of Indian studies that such knowledge was once in view, if not in hand, in the comprehensive myth studies of Boas and his proteges, around 1910. In a famous essay refuting the solar-myth theories of Paul Ehrenreich, for example, T. T. Waterman adduced featural details from no fewer than fifty-eight tribal repertories! It is humbling to think that nobody commands such a range today.
Another pressing interpretive need is for comparative studies-that is, between
the narrative and poetic art of the Indian repertories and that of our own.
What, to take two obvious examples, do Beowulf and the Odyssey
have to do with some of our Indian hero cycles? The mysterious figure of the
trickster is prominent in both the Indian and Western literatures-what of it?
Such questions represent an area in which conventional literary scholarship
is capable, even though not founded on the native languages, of making important
contributions to the understanding of Indian texts. Conventional American literary
scholarship also has the opportunity, and I think the obligation as [p. 59]
well, to help bring about the formal recognition of the native literatures in
our schools-through a careful review of American literature curricula, through
insistence that classroom anthologies include significant and authentic native
texts, through closer attention to the literary training of teachers, through
the purchase by libraries of modem translations of traditional texts, new studies
of native languages and oral literatures, and new books by American Indian writers.
Returning to more purely critical work: we speak confidently of the Indian literatures as "traditional" and "anonymous," but as we perceive them more clearly as art, the possibility of there being a personal element of creativity in some texts becomes more distinct, expressing itself not in our authorial terms but rather in subtle transformations of traditional elements. Hymes has suggested, conclusively I think, that the nineteen-century Chinookan storyteller Charles Cultee was a bona fide literary artist in this sense, not just a terminal vehicle for Chinookan lore ("Folklore's Nature"). Perhaps in such work, looking for the ghostly nuances of individual artists within what Hymes has called the "imperturbable self-transmogrifications of myth"---perhaps in such difficult work we stand to learn a great deal about myth, about our concepts of authorship, and about the very origins of literature.
In somewhat the same vein, we have almost everything to learn about the element of adaptation in American Indian texts-specifically adaptation and incorporation of Anglo literary materials, and for that matter those of blacks and Hispanics. If one set of biases led many nineteenth-century writers to deny that Indians had literary traditions worth mentioning at all---
I am far from believing the many long and strange traditions with which we are often entertained. it is more than probable, that they are in most instances the gratuitous offerings of designing and artful traders and hunters to that curiosity which is ever awake and attentive to subjects of this description.... (Parker 235)
---then another set of biases has led to a rigid "classicism" whereby most scholars have avoided transcribing narratives in which Caucasian influences are at work, such as native incorporations of Bible stories and French folktales. Works interweaving the two cultures were and in many regions still are popular in Indian communities; it is regrettable, in terms of what they can reveal about the continuities of native values and imaginative forms, that so few texts have been collected and that the topic has been virtually
This worksheet for the study of native literatures could go on and on-and
should and will go on, I hope, elsewhere and in other hands. I will leave off
with one final project, the undertaking of which would signal more clearly than
anything else I can think of that the American literary establishment had actually
accepted, belatedly, its intellectual and artistic obligations to America's
first literatures. Nothing less than a native counterpart to the monumental
collaboration that has produced the Center for Editions of American Authors
series, it would call for the systematic preparation and publication of a "standard"
dual-language edition of the surviving Native American repertories-proceeding
tribe by tribe, with full textual apparatus as needed. The task I propose is
formidable, and no doubt at present far beyond either our scholarly or our financial
capabilities, but in the light of historical barriers between Anglo and native
literatures, the missed chances and literary rootlessness of Americans writing
in the [p. 60] European tradition, the continuing loss among the Indians of
stories and storytellers and the continued inaccessibility to them of scholarly
texts, can we afford to do anything less now?
One of those Anglo authors whom we have fittingly standardized is, of course,
Thoreau. In the handsome Princeton edition of The Maine Woods, I found
two passages that somehow evoke both a poignant sense of how much we literary
people---even men like Thoreau---have ignored, neglected, or misunderstood in
the Native American cultures, and a thrilling sense of the crucial value of
the native imaginative heritage in American life, if we could only understand
that heritage. In the first passage, Thoreau offers---the only time he does
so in the book---a summary of an Abenaki myth, about how Gluskap the Transformer
foiled a giant female moose and turned her carcass into Mt. Kineo. Now, as Robert
Sayre observes, Thoreau was "a poet and traveler" in his interest in Indians,
not an anthropologist (or student of ethnopoetics)-but it is disappointing to
find him following the myth summary with this glibly scornful observation, worthy
of a Parkman or a Twain perhaps but not of someone so capable of imaginatively
escaping his own ethnocentrism:
An Indian tells such a story as if he thought it deserved to have a great deal said about it, only he has not got it to say and so he makes up for the deficiency by a drawling tone, long-windedness, and a dumb wonder which he hopes will be contagious. (172) 8
The second passage describes what Thoreau heard one night while bedded down in the "Moose Camp" with Joe Aitteon and some Abenaki guides; it has a very different resonance:
While lying there listening to the Indians, I amused myself with trying to guess at their subject by their gestures, or some proper name introduced. There can be no more startling evidence of their being a distinct and comparatively aboriginal race, than to hear this unaltered Indian language, which the white man cannot speak or understand. We may suspect change and deterioration in almost every other particular, but the language which is so wholly unintelligible to us. It took me by surprise, though I had found so many arrowheads, and convinced me that the Indian was not the invention of historians and poets. It was a purely wild and primitive sound, as much as the barking of a chickaree, and I could not understand a syllable of it.... These Abenakis gossiped, laughed, and jested, in the language in which Eliot's Indian Bible is written, the language which has been spoken in New England who shall say how long? These were the sounds that issued from the wigwams of this country before Columbus was born; they have not yet died away, and with remarkably few exceptions, the language of their forefathers is still copious enough for them. I felt that I stood, or rather lay, as near to the primitive man of America, that night, as any of its discoverers ever did. (212) 9
So near, one is tempted to say on Thoreau's behalf; so near and yet so far off.
It is not just a boyish exultation over his close encounter with aboriginal life
that Thoreau is expressing here; it is also his dilated awareness in such company
of being an American himself, an American writer, but lacking the imagination
of native origins and incapable of speaking or comprehending the first languages
of the land. How to understand one's own American identity in relation to Abenaki
words from Maine, or the myths of the Wasco Chinookans of the Northwest, or the
fiction of Momaday---that is part of [p. 61] the challenge in the serious study
of native oral traditions and writing. Those of us who are now engaged in this
study ask not for an Indian redefinition of the origins of American literature
but rather for recognition of Native American literature as one of its essential
1 Early in his career Pound wrote a brief and apparently unironic Hiawatha imitation titled "Legend of the Chippewa Spring and Minnehaha, the Indian Maiden." See King 280-81.
2 Typical of Williams's brief but appreciative summaries of Narragansett and
other myths is his note on the natives' reverence for crows: ". . . they have
a tradition, that the Crow brought them at first an Indian Graine of Corne
in one Eare, and an Indian or French Beane in the other, from
the Great God Kautantouwits field in the Southwest from whence they hold came
all their Corne and Beanes" (96-97).
3 See Schoolcraft, Indian and Schoolcraft's Indian Legends.
On Longfellow's debt to the Kalevala, see Keiser 192. Keiser himself
does not acknowledge the existence of Native American traditional literature
per se; he makes no reference to the contemporary work of Franz Boas, A. L.
Kroeber, Robert Lowie, Paul Radin, and other transcribers and commentators.
4 Dabney is not far off the mark in asserting that Faulkner is "the one fiction
writer of consequence since before the Civil War to make substantial use of
the Indian subject" (4); but he does not consider actual myth texts about totemic
bears from southern tribes, like those in Mooney, Myths of the Cherokees
(see esp. "Bear Man" 325). Similarly, in Bear, Man, and God, Utley, Bloom, and
Kinney ignore specific myth analogues and offer only a selection from A. Irying
Hallowell's "Bear Ceremonialism in the Northern Hemisphere" (187-89) and a Delaware
text about a woman's bear dream (185-86).
5 For a discussion of Silko's and Niatum's use of native traditions and the
obligations of the critic in dealing with adaptations by Native American writers,
see Ramsey, "Teacher." See also the symposium issue of American Indian Quarterly
on Silko's Ceremony, and Niatum, "On Stereotypes" (160-66).
6 Representative works are Tedlock, Finding the Center, Toelken and
Scott; Evers and Molina; and Bouchard and Kennedy.
7 See Ramsey, "Bible." In The Golden Woman, Mattina offers a remarkable
instance of native adaptation of a European folktale.
8 In his neglected Algonquin Legends of New England, Leland gives another
version of the story and takes sharp issue with Thoreau's remark. "This concluding
criticism is indeed singularly characteristic of Mr. Thoreau's own nasal stories
about Nature, but it is as utterly untrue as ridiculous when applied to any
Indian story-telling to which I have ever listened . . . " (65-66). An authentic
dual-language text of Thoreau's garbled Mt. Kineo myth is given by Speck in
"Penobscot Transformer Tales" (204).
9 Philip F. Gura has illuminated the whole subject of Thoreau's mixed feelings about the Native Americans he encountered in Maine in "Thoreau's Maine Woods Indians."